Yankee Ridge's $9M remodel brings new rooms and tech, reopened skylight

Yankee Ridge's $9M remodel brings new rooms and tech, reopened skylight

URBANA — In at the new-and-improved Yankee Ridge Elementary: 11 classrooms, including ones for drama and dance; central air; an updated kitchen; and space for the addition of a French dual-language program.

Out: Window air-conditioning units; food prepared and hauled in from Urbana Middle School; and, eventually, all traces of construction workers, who were hard to miss at this time last year.

Ask Principal Brian Anderson what he thinks of the $9 million overhaul the Urbana elementary got, and he'll tell you — not that he's complaining — that it's been "a long time" coming.

Like most here heading into today's start of school, he's excited about changes big and small that are equally important for the experience of the school's nearly 350 students.

One of those was as simple as desks.

"(Our music teacher) wanted to get new furniture at a higher level, so that kids can play music without having to sit down," Anderson said during a weekend tour of the building.

So they did. The desks are adjustable for height, but they stand higher than normal and allow more flexibility than desks that require students to sit.

Anderson also noted that, in addition to being able to prepare school breakfast and lunches on-site, students will now be served in lunch trays made of plastic, a more environmentally friendly option than the disposable Styrofoam versions of past years.

There are also lighting upgrades that school officials hope will be a hit in the classrooms. No longer must a switch be flipped to turn them off or on — now, there are programmable options that range from warm lighting ("test" mode) to all overhead lights but two being off ("presentation" mode) or bright lighting for high-energy situations.

It's something to set a mood, but Anderson also believes it offers a chance to "empower" students.

"We like to give them jobs," he said. "Immediately, some of us started talking about how we have another job for a student in every classroom. They can be the light technician."

Light played a large role in the renovations, ranging from low-energy LED lights in the new gym to the opening of a skylight installed in the building in 1967 but closed afterward for reasons Anderson and longtime Yankee Ridge staffers still don't know.

"I think it's been at least 20 or 30 years since it's been opened up," he said. "I don't recall anyone in the building remembering it as a staff member. There's a teacher that has taught here for 22 years, and she hadn't seen this."

The skylight brightens what has been a dark space near the kindergarten classrooms, one of which is now dedicated to the French dual-language program.

"We're in the upper 20s, nearly 30 students enrolled in the program," Anderson said. "We have two dedicated classroom teachers to it."

Yankee Ridge's addition of the dual-language program, which teaches students in French and supplements the district's Spanish dual-language program, had been hotly debated by Urbana school board members, who worried about exceeding capacity at the school and thought it could be a better fit at Wiley Elementary.

But enough Yankee Ridge parents had expressed interest in the program for it to start here. Two classroom teachers will be dedicated to the kindergarten and first-grade participants.

Fourth-grade teacher Megan McCannon remembers what construction was like last school year and the restrictions it placed on students at the time.

"A lot of our students last year saw all the construction, so I think the kids will be really excited to see what all the new classrooms look like," she said. "I'm really excited for my new classroom. I've got great new windows."

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